Herman Spector on Driving a Cab
[from an unpublished manuscript]
I am a night worker who sometimes has daymares. A nightowl Hackie, that stereotype of columnists and nite-clubbers referred to in jest. A pariah of a pave, a modern-day rickshaw coolie with rearview callouses and cannibalistic concepts. This is the image of myself that recurrs in the teffifying dream. When I wake, I know the dream to be a reality.
Here I am in the gangster's cap, shiny-bottom pants, wearing the torn and eggstained jacket prescribed for all my tribe. A pencil is stuck behind my ear; my belt sags with the weight of a fully loaded nickel-clicker. I am obese, greasy, semi-literate.
Just over my skull, as I sat chained to the wheel like some galley slave to his oar, hung that badge of infamy, my Hack License. It resembled the tin nameplate stuck on the bars of a cage in the zoo, informing visitors of the genus, species, age and date of capture of the beast within. Mine was more detailed. Illumined in blurred plastic through the long night, it showed a cynical version of my phiz, gave my private name, public number, and warned:
PASSENGERS For your protection keep a record of above name and number. Refer complaints to a Policeman or to Hack License Bureau, 156 Greenwich Street, New York City.
Apparently, I was dangerous. . . .
In the dream I drove on and on like a man demented through a night that was deeper than terror, madder than lust, stranger than metaphor. The Passenger, a malevolent figure, squatted at my back, faceless, unseen, and constantly expelled noxious fumes down my neck. At times there would reach me a whirring, mechanical noise, like a cheap toy's windup:
"To the Plahza, plee-uz!"
Or: "You coulda made that light, Mac."
I developed a tin ear. All that clicked in my head were the names of streets and the numbers of houses. I said "Thanksalot" and "Watchyerstep," took heed of signal lights, growled back to the horns. All the horns were angry. I swore, and spat, and slavered, tugging at the leash.
To the Passenger, by whom I was paid, tipped, and swiftly forgotten, I was no more than a blind and muck-laden creature of the dark. Crustaceous, I scuttled across turgid seas of traffic. I was necessary but somehow loathesome.
Columnists, niteclub comics, YMHA intellectuals and gimlet-eyed cloakandsuiters found my accent laughable, my temper vile, my thought-processes stale and vicious. To them I was the lowest common denominator of Mob Man. Members of groups that thirsted for vengeance on account of wrongs fancied or real, spewed their venom(y) on me. I was the butt of every tinhorn jerk or hood with the price of a ride .
Tall tales are told of my multifarious sins. I roll rushes, it is said, insulted old ladies, clipped Live Ones, and delighted in taking Outoftowners for a ride around the Mulberry Bush. I even bragged of such misdeeds to others of the Gang, at a table in the Automat or whiling away the time on a hackstand, just to prove what a rollicking ass I could be. I am a stereotype of vulgarity, a loudmouth. And I recited my lines exactly as they were given to me, without changing a comma. The only crime I was innocent of was that of bitterness. I was much too dumb, they said, for that.
Yet there was something in me hidden away, unknown. Something that stirred when clean winds blew out of distant spaces. Though vanished from the eye of love, from even the memory of friends, that something writhed in agonies I could not even know were spiritual. Indeed, buried inside the armorplate of my swampdwelling species, what could I know of either spirit or sense? All I knew was a dull loathing for work that exhausted and shocked, but left no pause in which to lean, and loaf, and invite the soul. I was an appendage of the machine. I had no soul.
Unceasingly, for seven years, I made the circuit of neon and stone: Times Square to Chinatown, Park Avenue to Forest Hills, the Penn to Grand Central, Coney Island to Delancey Street. Of that arctic vast without, I knew nothing.
In time, I came to think that I would never wake to human speech again. Middleaged, I would probably drop dead at the wheel while rolling along a superhighway under the naked moon. I would be smashed up and conveniently cremated in the wreck. In the world I inhabited, my silence was bitter as the stink of a dead cigar, black as the frozen, twisted tubes of a Broadway "spectacular" gone dead in a storm. Until the last lousy lush is tucked away in his tasselated sty in Riverdale or Beekman Place, I swore, I shall keep that silence unbroken. Never shall I utter a word in praise or blame. Never shall I reveal the flatulent secrets of this grimy trade.
I am dreaming at the wheel while the cab is parked at a hackstand, its motor thrumming, windshield wipers slapping at the black wet world outside. Let it rain. Let people scrabble for cabs outside Grand Central and Penn Stations, and curse all derelict cabbies who sit unprofitably at a curb and dream, and wait for no passengers. A passenger now would disturb the even flow of thought. (or, the even flow of my reflections, break the spell of memory.) I reach back, lock the doors, and turn the light switch off. But I let the motor run, just for company . . .
I dream that I am a child again in the Bronx. I am in the kitchen of our railroad flat. It is evening. I have much homework still to do.
The night of the Hackie is deep, dark, and beyond all known stars . How many howls in the night I have heard! How many lost souls, drifting along the pavement like wisps of steam from gratings, have I passed and noted!
Many times I saw Max Bodenheim, the poet ruined by alcohol, striding hatless in the cold, with a strange glitter in his stary (stony?) eye, an envelope of poems under his arm, muttering through clenched teeth. And at 3 A.M. on an eastside street, just weeks before his horrible death, I saw the youth who murdered him walk by--a dark, sullen youth fondling a cat inside his sweater--recognized him as such by his picture in the paper. My cab was parked at the curb when this obvious psychopath came by. The cop standing nearby winked to me and said: "All the nuts are out at 3 A . M."
The city is full of dead poets at night, most of whom live out their poems in lonesome walks because they are too scared or too tired to write them. The city bludgeons them by day: they are truckdrivers, ad writers, gadget salesmen . I knew one who hemstitched matzos in a dingy east side factory. But at night the snakes of thought uncoil; sliding out between the prison bars, they emerge upon the sparkling pavement and slither away, free at last. These may be poisoners or harmless, depending on the species. I have seen both from the vantage point of my cab.
Hackies don't stick together; it only looks that way in heavy traffic. They are, in fact, the most vituperatively self-hating group of men in existence. They hate one another's guts, and with reason. (or, Among New York's ten thousand hackies, there is little joi de vivre, no esprit de corps, and only a limited kind of savoir faire. They are a glum bunch who hate each other's guts.) But of sangfroid and chutzpah they have mucho. Full of bluster and bluff, the socalled "average hackie" will commit himself to any dogmatic opinion that is not at variance with his favorite newspaper's editorial page. He will tell you who ought to be shot, drawn and quartered, and who deserves a Congressional Medal for having stolen a million bucks. And he will tell it in impeccably dull and dirty lingo. There he is right in the swim of the merde moderne. I have heard actors, actresses, politicians, Park Avenue dowagers, and other monied whores sound off, and they do no better with Shakespeare's language. Only, the cabbie sounds more natural.
When the tag, "rugged individualist," is pinned to the diaper of that cruelly abandoned and motherless waif, the New York Hackie, I permit myself a chuckle in between sobs. Hoo, hoo, hoo! Because he snarls up and at traffic, because he has to scramble the streets for pay dirt, because he spits opinions like oysters with every catarrhal breath he draws, the cabbie becomes, in the sentimentalist view, a real person behind the wheel. Alas, this is simply not true. The only time the cabbie becomes real, even to himself, is when he is miles removed from the working milieu--at home, on his day off. But on the job, he is a zero, a smudged and grimy rubberstamp, okaying the obvious. His reflexes are routine, unhealthy, and predictable. He is just a sad sack with more wrinkles than most.
Removed from the seat of privilege behind the wheel, your routine hackie is the dullest conversationalist this side of Hell. With no captive audience to mumble appreciation at his smart-sounding cliches and swiftly lethal judgements, he is revealed as an oaf with no thought higher than the pork-and-beans of his daily earnings. When his dismal rounds are done, he will foregather in the home garage or coffeepot for the sole purpose of toting up, to a penny, what he earned that night. "I got 27 calls, I was out to La Guardia twice, I caught one back to 72nd, I done 3 jobs." There are no faces in all this talk. There is no flavor of a street; the city is a shapeless mass and life is a traffic switchboard where amorphous metal objects move on green, stop on red, and go on endlessly, without purpose, from the cradle (garage) to the grave (junkheap).
Hackies are just as individual as unsugared Automat doughnuts, and they exhibit all the rugged qualities of a male spider about to be lured, screwed and devoured. I mean, why do you suppose these guys have developed no effective organization to protect their rights or boost their earnings in all these years of labor struggles and victories? Why do they permit themselves to be bulldozed, badgered, pre-judged and slapped around (for tiny infractions of a thousand senseless rules) by the Hack Bureau? Why is it they can be bounced out of a 20-year job for a traffic accident which they did not cause? All this, because they are rugged? Tell that to your Aunt Tallahassee.
Friday is the big Shape-up. The men drifting down to the waterfront garages like flies dropping on a bucket of molasses. Part-timers, old-timers, men who heard you can make a quick buck hacking on weekends. They crowd the place, overflow on the sidewalk, hang around and spit and wait their turn. Some stand as if rooted before the Despatcher's platform, trying to catch his eye, to remind him they've been waiting around a long time, too long. Others indulge in a bit of absentminded chaff or pretend to read a newspaper. They fidget and shift from one foot to the other, trying to restrain a bitter impatience. All this waste of time and strength--it makes a gaping hole in a man's life.
Caged in a cell, tamed at last but still resentful, snubbing their noses against the steel bars while dreaming of wide green fields beyond. The big guys--overfleshed, corpsical products of an unhealthy milieu--remind me exactly of chained elephants rocking back and forth, swaying from side to side, little eyes gleaming fiercely, waiting for peanuts.
from Bastard in the Ragged Suit: Writings of, with Drawings by, Herman Spector. Ed. Bud Johns and Judith S. Clancy. San Francisco: Synergistic Press, 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Synergistic Press. Reprinted by permission of Synergistic Press.
[NOTE: Consult this book for a complete collection of Spector's work.]
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